On January 20, 2009, thousands of people gathered on Upper Sproul Plaza to watch the inauguration of former president Barack Obama. I was 19-years old at the time, a second-semester freshman, watching an enormous screen from a perch under the eaves of Martin Luther King Jr. Student Union. A hush fell over us as the words of the new president’s oath boomed over the speakers. That day, life’s possibilities seemed limitless. We felt powerful.
Yet as Obama delivered his address, the worst economic calamity of the 21st century to date expanded just the same. The financial collapse and the subsequent recovery would define who all of us on campus were to become.
It was a menace for the ages.
Jobs dried up by the millions. The cost of housing, education and health care crept up significantly as wages stagnated. The government soon entered a decade-long permafrost on legislation that mattered. UC Berkeley became more expensive by the semester, and the campus was thrown into upheaval. Too many college students across the country dropped out.
An abiding fear tempered that sense of possibility. I was often too naive to understand it fully, but it was there — gnawing at my class choices, how I spent my summers and eventually what graduation meant. I remember UC Berkeley public policy professor Robert Reich telling a packed Wheeler Auditorium that our college degrees would render us uniquely fortunate in an increasingly unequal society, and he was right. But we hardly felt triumphant.
Now that COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, is both a pandemic and an economic disaster, you’ll have to grapple with a reality similar to ours a decade ago. Like us, you too will forever have a crisis in your genetics — but your fate is far from sealed.
Your circumstances will improve. I grieve for the seniors’ final semester — a special time, at UC Berkeley especially — but you will find your way. New admits should plan on embracing college once the worst of this pandemic passes. For those of you with more time on campus, don’t let this radically change your course. Take the classes that inspire you. If you can afford it, keep your career ambitions and dreams alive. What might feel impossible today will be your reality tomorrow.
Whatever you do, don’t lose your way like many of us did.
We were instrumental in electing Obama, and then we turned away from voting. In 2016, barely half of the eligible millennial voters cast a ballot, a number well below projections. We care about climate change and yet seem incapable of solving it. On most metrics for adulthood — marriage, parenthood, homeownership, savings — we are lagging behind our parents and their parents.
But we were never fated to live by what we were heirs to in 2009. And neither are you today.
I often think about that January morning on Sproul and how that gathering was part of a long democratic heritage on campus — from the initial design and evolution of a land grant university, to the Free Speech Movement, to ongoing scientific research for the public good, to the radical idea of providing an excellent public education at a time of retrenchment. Each generation has an opportunity to redefine society by its own means. No rule or expectation persists like some law of physics.
My generation was supposed to inherit that legacy of progress, and we may have already given it up. Soon you will stand at a similar crossroads. You’ve already been asked to help beat this pandemic. Then we all will have to rebuild, and you will inherit whatever we do.
Back in 2009, I continued my studies and eventually graduated. Over time, I found work and went to graduate school. But that peculiar brew of hope and fear stays with me — how the worst of it seemed to linger just off campus across Bancroft Way and Hearst Avenue, while the unbridled potential of things kept on in the warrens of Dwinelle Hall and the lecture halls of Stanley.
Perhaps campuses will always be a haven for that sort of feeling. My hope now is that the balance of you will hold on to that sense of enormous possibility — and that it will keep you from going silent into your 20s and 30s.